February 11th, 2011

Lizard Thumb

Thoughts on Mozilla Community

Jamie Zawinski's 1999 post on leaving AOL/Netscape/mozilla.org

This bit of history was linked today on Hacker News, and re-reading it touched on some points that I have been carefully considering the past few months, prompting me to write this.

I believe most people would agree that the Mozilla of today is a vastly changed beast from the dinosaur of the past.  We are faster, stronger, and we are delivering products and services that are changing the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

Of course, we still have a few of the same problems Jamie mentioned in his post, but we are much more cognizant of those problems and both the employees of Mozilla and the community are hard at work every day to solve those problems.

The piece I wanted to specifically share my thoughts about is community participation.  Jamie mentioned in his post that the release of the Netscape source code was a beacon of hope to him.  It was putting the control of the web browser into the hands of anyone who cared to step up to the task.  By the time that he decided to resign however, he did not feel that particular goal had succeeded.  He stated that the project was not adopted by the outside.  I might argue the details since it wouldn't have gotten where it was today if there was zero adoption, but the point is still useful.

Further down was the kicker for me.  In "Excuse #2" Jamie states the following:
"People only really contribute when they get something out of it. When someone is first beginning to contribute, they especially need to see some kind of payback, some kind of positive reinforcement, right away. For example, if someone were running a web browser, then stopped, added a simple new command to the source, recompiled, and had that same web browser plus their addition, they would be motivated to do this again, and possibly to tackle even larger projects."

Wow, that harmonizes with my feelings today.  Everyone who is active in the Mozilla Community today is active because they get something out of it.  I believe that the majority of people who are no longer active in the community reached some point where they stopped getting something useful out of it.  That might have been because something was too hard for them to do by themselves, or because of a bad interaction with another community member or even an employee.  But, for whatever reason, they lost that spark and then we lost them.

The Mozilla employees need to become flint and steel for the community.  We need to be constantly tossing sparks out, flashes of light that will ignite fire in the spirits of our community and will catch the attention of people across the globe and draw them in.

Back in December, I met with a few people including Pedro Alves, David Eaves, Asa Dotzler, and Dan Mosedale. We were discussing a project to quantify and provide actionable insight for community participation.

Since that meeting, the Mozilla Metrics team has been working on the first iteration of this project, a dashboard that visualizes commit activity in Mozilla's Mecurial repository. Within a few weeks, we should have this ready to share with people. Future iterations will also draw data from Bugzilla patches and reviews. There are a ton of other datasources that we could consider, but these are definitely enough to get us started. I am also very pleased to see several other teams working on other community focused projects. Obviously Mozilla Drumbeat is the flagship there, but the SUMO and Engagement teams have interesting projects in the works as well.

All this activity centered on engaging our community is thrilling to me. Every person that we inspire, assist, and collaborate with is much more likely to "pay it forward" and do the same for someone else. Community is what strengthens Mozilla. There are many open source projects with communities around them, but Mozilla is in the company of a special few whose goals are truly public benefit driven rather than using open source as a tool to make a great piece of software.

Throughout 2011, I believe we need to spend as much time focusing on ways to understand and collaborate to make our community an army of awesome as we spend on the more straightforward engineering task of making our services and products awesome. This is what Jamie stated inspired him about Netscape's original choice to embrace community and open source, and it is definitely what inspired me to become involved and make Mozilla's mission my own.